Iditarod means “a far distance place” in the Alaska Native Ingalik Indian language. Halditrod was the traditional name of the river in which, in 1908, gold was discovered in a nearby tributary, and people flocked to the area and other gold-rich parts of Alaska.
With winter in most parts of Alaska lasting six months, dog teams were the only reliable mode of transportation at the time and were heavily relied upon. People traveled from village to village and supplies, including the U.S. mail, were hauled by dog teams and their drivers over various trails. The longest and most well-connected trail was the 938-mile Iditarod Trail from Seward, Alaska, to Nome.
After the airplane and snowmobile came to Alaska, the dog teams were slowly put out of business. Villages that used to have hundreds of sled dogs now had nearly none. Joe Redington Sr. was a man who loved dogs and dog mushing, as he used the dog team while homesteading in Alaska in 1948 as well as in his work for the U.S. Army recovering crashed airplanes. Seeing the decline of the dog team in Alaskan villages, Redington yearned to revitalize dog mushing.
After helping to organize a short 25-mile sled dog race in 1967, Redington was convinced that a long-distance race, over the historic Iditarod Trail, would be the way to bring back the sled dog. On the first Saturday in March of 1973, 35 mushers left Anchorage on the inaugural 1,049-mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race to Nome.
The Iditarod race now attracts an average of 75 mushers each year and covers the same course (Anchorage to Nome) as the first race, though every other year the trail is alternated, midway, between a northern and southern route. Redington succeeded in bringing back the sled dog. The trail is 99 percent in the wilderness and runs through forests, over frozen tundra, down and across many rivers and creeks, crosses two mountain ranges and passes over hundreds of miles of sea ice.
Race rules stipulate mushers begin with 12 to 16 dogs. Dogs may be dropped along the way, but no new ones may be added, and the musher must finish with at least five dogs. Mushers may have no outside assistance at any time during the race and must check in at each of the 22 checkpoints to have their dogs examined by a team of veterinarians. Mushers send supplies and dog food to each of the checkpoints prior to the race start. The winner will finish the thousand miles in eight days, and the last musher, some five or so days later.
If you’ve ever wondered just how tough it is to be an Iditarod musher, consider this: More people have summited Mt. Everest than have completed the Iditarod.
How I Became Iditarod’s Photographer
In 1980, at age 20, I was shooting weddings and portraits in Anchorage. I had never heard about the Iditarod, until one day when I was fortunate to meet Redington and asked him if I could make his portrait. Joe was a most avid photographer, and on that first day meeting him I was simply fascinated by his life and the Iditarod as he showed me hundreds of Kodachrome images of his early homesteading and dog mushing adventures.
Joe wanted to get everyone who he could involved in the Iditarod, and after the portrait shoot he asked me if I wanted to take one of his dog teams to Nome. I politely declined, and he shot back with, “Well, then come take pictures for us.” And so I did.
For the 1981 race, I found a private pilot who was willing to fly me along the trail if I paid for the gas and oil for the plane. My $500 budget only got me as far as halfway through the race. I processed the images and donated over a hundred black-and-white prints to the non-profit Race Committee.
A couple months later, they called and said, “If you want to donate your photos again next year, we’ll pay for your gas and oil and food, and you can sleep with the other volunteers and be one of our official photographers.” I agreed, and that’s the premise that we still work under today. I’m one of the thousands of volunteers who help put on the race each year.
The first couple years I photographed the race, I had absolutely no idea of what I was doing or how to do it. I just went out and shot, waited around and shot some more when something happened. Or I missed the shot. Or I heard from a musher, “You should have been where I was a couple hours ago.” I tried, and I learned.
Then, after having traveled the trail a few times, I began to understand the players better and really got to see the terrain, the various checkpoints and the like. I started to devise actual “plans” ahead of time regarding where I might want to be to get more of the unique shots. But planning out a 10-day photo shoot over a 1,000-mile course of wilderness, with no guarantee of flyable weather and not knowing whether or not I’d be able to actually get to some of the places I saw previously, made it really a logistical nightmare. My plans were more often thwarted than successful.
Now, after 36 consecutive years of covering the race, and the digital age upon us, logistics are still mostly unpredictable but a bit easier, and I am certainly more relaxed about it.
Photographing The Iditarod Adventure
My main mode of transportation is the Alaska bush plane. The race committee dedicates a pilot of my choosing to me. We fly in a 4-person Cessna 185 airplane. Over the 36 years, I’ve had three main pilots, interspersed with years where I had to use several pilots for the trip. After a life-and-death plane crash in 1992 while covering the race, I’m looking for a very experienced and safe pilot as well as one who can fly the plane in a way that allows me to make good aerial photos. Not all pilots can do all three well.
With no roads along the trail, we typically fly from checkpoint to checkpoint. While flying, I’m always on the lookout for something unique about the trail that would tell the story of this year’s race, something different than a snowy path to Nome. It might be a challenging area for the team to negotiate or a treacherous-looking section, or one with great beauty or just somehow photographically different from what I’ve shot in the past. When I spot one, there is hopefully a dog team nearby.
By the second day of the race, the 75 or so dog teams are spread out over hundreds of miles. It would not be unusual for me to wait hours for a team to show up at any particular point. So it’s a real advantage to know just where the mushers are. Depending on the scene I find, and where the dog team is on the trail, we may land the plane nearby on a river, lake or open area for a ground-based image, or make a few passes of the team to make an aerial shot. As we approach a checkpoint, I’m even more interested in finding that unique perspective on the area from which to shoot, and also looking if a team will be arriving soon.
Once we land at a checkpoint, if I noticed a good scene or a team on the way in, I will usually borrow or rent a snowmachine (the Alaskan word for snowmobile) from a village resident and drive on the race course a few miles or more to wait at that location for a team to come by.
When I find an interesting part of the trail, I attempt to make the most of it and the dog team that is heading toward me. I may not get another shot at a team in that same area. In doing so, I’ll look for a vantage point that allows me both a telephoto shot, as well as a wide-angle view, and pre-visualize the shots. Sometimes that does not work and I only get one view of the team.
With the race course stretched over 1,000 miles, there is certainly diversity in the terrain, but at the same time, there is a lot of the same thing. Miles and miles of nothing. But even that can be beautiful with the right conditions. Shooting the same race, over the same course, for so many years, it’s sometimes difficult to find inspiration and a new perspective. At times it’s hard for me to get motivated to shoot the same thing in the same place as previous years.
There is one section of the trail that suits my taste best and that I can photograph over and over again. That is the 65 miles of trail from the Finger Lake Checkpoint to the Rainy Pass checkpoint and up and over the Alaska Range, to the Rohn Checkpoint. I love this area because I so enjoy juxtaposing the small dog team against the massive looming mountains that encompass it. This is an expanse where I typically spend two or more full days. Most years I will hire a local guide to take me by snowmachine the 35 miles from the Rainy Pass checkpoint, up at over the 3,022-foot summit of Rainy Pass to Rohn. We may even spend the night in a small hunting cabin near the summit.
The checkpoints of the Iditarod range from primitive tent-camps set up just for the race by the Trail Committee, to a few old cabins in a ghost town or, most common, an Alaska Native village of 150-250 people. During the race, these villages are a buzz of activity from the scores of race volunteers (trail breakers, veterinarians, checkers and communication personnel) flown in for the race and the locals who also volunteer. Iditarod is known as the Mardi Gras of the North.
At the checkpoints, I edit and caption the images, then turn them over to my volunteer assistant, who processes the images and uploads them to the Iditarod website and social media. While that is taking place, I am out shooting more at the checkpoint.
Iditarod Gear & Preparations
The weather in Alaska of is oftentimes unpredictable, and in the winter it can be most unforgiving and brutal. During my years chronicling the race I’ve seen 40 degrees above zero and rain, 60 degrees below zero and clear, winds to 60 mph, and everything in between. A typical race will have temperatures from 20 above zero to 25 or 30 below zero for a few days. There’s been years where there was not a cloud in the sky for the entire race, and other years where snow and wind wreak havoc on the flying transportation, grounding the volunteer Iditarod Air Force for days. The reliable dog teams still move easily—it’s just the people following the race in planes who are stuck.
Because we’re in a small plane and weight is an issue, I pack as lightly and compactly as I can while still having enough gear to be comfortable outdoors for hours at a time at those sub-zero temps. I carry only one duffle bag of spare clothes, adding layers to what I already have on as the temps drop.
For me, if my feet are warm, then for the most part, I’m warm. So I wear one pair of really sturdy boots on the trail, a pair of Cabela’s Trans-Alaska boots. They have 3 inches of material between the ground and my foot, plus good insulation. I’ve never had cold feet in them. Of course, I must be able to use my hands to operate the cameras even at those cold temperatures. My preference is to wear gloves made of wind-stopping material for shooting, and if necessary put them inside large mittens when not.
My everyday assignment and stock photo cameras are Canon EOS 5D Mark III and EOS 7D Mark II bodies. But for the Iditarod, using Canon’s Professional Service, I borrow two EOS-1D X Mark II bodies. These bodies are perfect for the Iditarod for four main reasons: the low-noise, high-ISO capabilities are fantastic; the 12 fps motor drive works wonderfully with the fast-moving dogs; the high-power NiCad batteries last a long time in the cold; and, my very most favorite feature of the 1D X Mark II, the ability to embed a sound recording in the image file. This feature is unbelievably useful, allowing me to speak the caption, including spelling of a person’s name, and have this saved with the image. That feature alone is worth using this camera—writing peoples’ names onto paper in sub-zero temps is hard enough, but then trying to match the images and caption later is a time waster.
My lens selection includes the Canon EF 16-35mm f/4L IS USM, EF 24-105mm f/4L IS USM, EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM and the EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM. I am always shooting with two bodies: one with a wide-angle lens and the other with a telephoto.
Planning An Iditarod Trip
For those who would want to experience the adventure of Alaska’s Iditarod and capture it with images, there are a number of options to consider. As mentioned, the race course has no roads connecting the checkpoints, making air travel a necessity.
For the first-time visitor, photographing in Anchorage during the Saturday ceremonial start, again at Willow on Sunday for the restart, and then some eight days later at the finish in Nome is by far the easier and least-expensive way to make images of a lot of dog teams over a short period of time. It’s easy enough to fly a commercial airline to these places, find the race route, rent a car, and stop along the trail to photograph. One does not need any special permission or experience to watch and photograph the race.
Getting out onto the trail where some of the more scenic and better photography can be found is a bit more involved. While not cheap ($4,000 to $12,000), there are a number of bush plane air-taxi services (see sidebar, below) that offer clients a seat on one of their three- to seven-passenger ski planes as part of a tour package to “chase the race.” One of the better ways to see and experience the Iditarod, these packages will take care of finding accommodations along the trail and fly out each day from one of the larger villages to view and photograph the dog teams, stopping at the smaller checkpoints.
Iditarod Travel Resources
Iditarod Air Taxis
• Sky Trekking Alaska, skytrekkingalaska.com
• Rust’s Flying Service, flyrusts.com
• Sheldon Air Service, sheldonairservice.com
• Talkeetna Air Taxi, talkeetnaair.com
• Regal Air, regal-air.com
• Ultima Thule, ultimathulelodge.com
Iditarod Tour Operators
• Iditarod Tours, iditarodtours.com
• Planet Earth Adventures, discoverak.com
Some of the more boutique air taxis will even stay with you and guide you to the smaller checkpoints, where the accommodations are a bit more primitive, like sleeping on the floor of the local school. This is by far the best way to get better photos and to immerse oneself in the spirit of the Iditarod. Some of these air taxis also offer less-expensive day trips from Anchorage during the first day or two of the race.
While not as intimate as a tour with one of the air taxis, there are a small number of tour operators who organize Iditarod trips using commercial airlines. These, too, can be a good way to experience the Iditarod.
For the photographer who wants the ultimate Iditarod adventure, consider hiring a personal pilot with a lot of Iditarod experience. It will be just you and the pilot in an even smaller plane, able to land in many more places along the trail to get more intimate images.
Jeff Schultz has been the official photographer of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race since 1982. See more of his work at schultzphoto.com.